Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Review: ‘Robocop’ (1987) is still one of the smartest, most brilliant satirical sci-fi movies out there

Posted by Max Lalanne on June 20, 2012

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When we think of a film like Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, we know that like the famed schlockmeister’s later works – Total Recall, and Starship Troopers among them – this one doesn’t shy away from the gory, over-the-top violence that prompted the MPAA to originally appoint a NC-17 rating on the film’s 1987 release. But also, when you think about Robocop on a deeper, less-superficial level, it’s actually one of cinematic history’s most self-aware and smartest movies, asking provocative philosophical questions about the nature of man and machine, all while being a bitingly ironical satire of American culture, thanks to the witty insertions of humorous newscasts throughout. The moralistically wrong tale of a straight-shooting cop, a family man, who is turned into a crime-annihilating cyborg following a fatal shooting – turned not by his own will, but inadvertently because an all-powerful mega-corporation wishes him to be their own walking puppet with no visible mind of his own – that’s pure, forward-thinking science-fiction right there, and Verhoeven milks it to full potential.

Robocop takes place in the unspecified future, in a crime-ridden, dystopian, and gloomy Detroit that even twenty-five years later is still presciently realistic and frightening. Even more spooky is the fact that the entire police force is owned and controlled by Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a ominously large mega-corporation that seeks to privatize the entire city and turn it into “Delta City.” To do that, though, they need to gain public favor and stem the tide of violence in the streets, which leads to OCP executive Richard “Dick” Jones (a villainous Ronny Cox) proposing a new kind of crime-fighter to the head of the company (Daniel O’Herlihy). This radically new lawman, a hunky robot called ED-209, immediately malfunctions rather embarrassingly, leading to the brash and promotion-seeking Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) proposing an alternative: Robocop, an advanced cyborg initiative based on some poor government-serving soul’s physical body and, in some way, mind. His hasty pitch is immediately accepted, infuriating the humiliated Jones, and setting the story in motion.

Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a straight-shooting cop and family man, has no inkling that he will become Robocop, and neither does OCP initially. After Murphy gets mortally shot up (in one of Robocop’s most ultra-violent scenes) pursuing the vicious criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang and dies on a hospital bed, though, OCP have their perfect basis for their experiment. Technicians resuscitate Murphy, erase his human memory and soul, and successfully create a robot out a dead man. Murphy is no longer, and who was previously regarded as Murphy, his independent body and mind, is a somewhat “smart” hunk of OCP-controlled metal with basic crime-fighting “directives” implanted in his mechanical mind, and no more than that. You don’t know what to feel about this – disgusted, unnerved, or glad that Murphy’s forced to have a second chance at life, even if he didn’t want it or doesn’t know it? Would it be illegal, if this were real life, to take a lifeless body and give it a new mind brainwashed with information or lack of such so that he can keep protecting innocent citizens?

Robocop would go on to influence nearly all sci-fi action films to follow, with its tightly-wound, tense and explosive shoot-em-up story that moves forward in an admirable pace. It’s also incredibly fun, filled with plenty of thrilling shootouts as Robocop cracks down single-handedly on the petty street criminals armed with his iconic pistol and the steely, unforgiving attitude of a mindless robot. But that’s the thing. Robocop’s not entirely a mindless robot – when he stops one of Boddicker’s men from murdering a gas station attendant, the recognition of one of his murderers opens the floodgates of repressed memories of his past life, for better or for worse. Robocop’s also aided by the spunky Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), who was his partner prior to his transformation and therefore is the sole one who recognizes him for who he really is – Murphy. After the overly-confident Morton is murdered in his apartment, however, overwhelming corporate corruption is proved to have cast its sticky cobweb far larger than an ordinary police office – even one supplied with indestructible armor and acute targeting systems – can handle. But then again, even as his humanity and soul is returning to his body, Robocop will never be Murphy again, because Murphy has become Robocop and there’s no switching back. He’ll never be just an ordinary police officer, just like Robocop will never be just an ordinary sci-fi thriller. They’ll just always be a little bit better.

Robocop: A

This review was also originally posted over at the fantastic Static Mass Emporium, for which I am a proud contributor.

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2 Responses to “Review: ‘Robocop’ (1987) is still one of the smartest, most brilliant satirical sci-fi movies out there”

  1. Read this earlier after it was posted on Twitter, loved the review.

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